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Victims in bus crash belonged to tightknit group at N.C. Baptist church

Last Updated 10:22 a.m. ET

DANDRIDGE, Tenn. For months, a tight-knit group of seniors at a North Carolina church had been looking forward to the road trip.

It was a tradition for members of the Young at Heart Ministry to attend the annual Fall Jubilee in Gatlinburg, Tenn., an event featuring gospel singers and speakers. The Front Street Baptist Church's website described the gathering as "three days of singing, laughing and preaching" for "mature and senior believers."

Church bus crash kills eight in Tenn.

But on the way back to Statesville, N.C., on Wednesday, the bus carrying the church group blew a tire, veered across a highway median and crashed into a sport utility vehicle and tractor-trailer. Six people from the bus were killed; one person in the tractor trailer and one in the SUV were also dead in the fiery wreck.

Fourteen others were hurt, including two in critical and seven in serious condition.

As of Thursday morning two of the 14 have been discharged.

Sgt. Bill Miller of the Tennessee Highway Patrol said today at a press conference that all bus victims were senior citizens or older adults.

As of Thursday morning the victims have not been identified. Sgt. Miller said positively identifying the dead could be tough; some victims were badly burned, and dental records would be needed in some cases.

Sgt. Miller also noted the tractor trailer was burned beyond recognition.

"This is hard," said Jerry Wright on Wednesday; his 73-year-old brother, John, and his wife were on the bus. "You try not to think the worst, but it gets to you."

He believes his brother may have been driving the church bus because he had done so in the past.

"If he was driving, it's going to be bad," he said. "I've been trying to ring them. I've been calling their phone, but it keeps ringing and ringing and ringing."

Pastor Rick Cruz, of the Front Street Baptist Church in Statesville, told CBS Affiliate WBTV that the congregation was saddened by the news and that they appreciate all the prayers given.

"Six of our loved ones have gone to be with The Lord in Heaven," Pastor Cruz said early Thursday morning.

A memorial service was held Wednesday evening. Police cordoned off the church to prevent reporters from talking to those who attended.

People gather outside of the Front Street Baptist Church in Statesville, N.C. before a memorial service on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013. A bus carrying members of the church blew a tire and crashed in Tennessee; six on board were killed. AP Photo/Nell Redmond

Inside the Statesville church, people were crying and hugging each other. One woman whispered, "It's going to be all right" while hugging another woman.

Authorities said the bus crossed the median and the cable barriers that divide the interstate around 2 p.m., clipped the oncoming SUV and slammed into the tractor-trailer, which burst into flames.

Several hours after the crash, clouds of smoke still rose from the tractor-trailer and tree branches that lined the highway were charred.

The bus was on its side next to the tractor-trailer, lying across two lanes of traffic and extending partially into the median.

The bus itself didn't actually catch on fire, but there was some "heat exposure," Jefferson County Emergency Management Director Brad Phillips said. Emergency responders were able to remove people who were alive rapidly to get them away from the flames and other Good Samaritans provided assistance.

The SUV was about 50 yards away from the tractor-trailer. It was still upright, but the back half had been completely ripped off.

The interstate was completely shut down in both directions, and the scene was eerily quiet, despite the presence of many emergency workers.

"This is an extremely horrific event," Tennessee Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Bill Miller said at an evening news conference.

He said authorities don't know yet what caused the tire to blow out.

The injured were taken to the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville. Late Wednesday, center spokesman Jim Ragonese said 14 people from the crash were being treated at the hospital. He said two were in critical condition, seven in serious condition, and five in stable condition.

State Department of Safety and Homeland Security spokeswoman Dalya Qualls said in an email 18 people were on the bus and six of them were killed. One person among the three in the SUV was killed and the tractor-trailer driver also died.

Qualls said Thursday morning that all lanes of the interstate had reopened by 5:15 a.m.

The American Red Cross provided a contact number -- (865) 305-5716 -- for individuals who may have loved ones involved in Wednesday's bus crash.